By Guest Critic Twig Collins | | March 27, 2009 |
OK, I know I’m digging into the hardcore geek territory with this one, but stick with me, movie lover. Sometimes the big shiny restaurant on the corner with all the lights on and the cute hostess isn’t the place to go. Sometimes it’s the restaurant that opens onto the dim alley, and serves you pad thai on greasy paper plates through a slot in the door that will change how you taste food forever.
Worthwhile stories from unexpected places. That’s what it’s all about, right? Given the light-speed eagerness of most big-name talent to turn gold into shit (You try watching your favorite four franchises tumble like dominoes into a vat of suck and see if you can’t hold a grudge into the next century), the “marketplace of ideas” theory seems the only saving grace for purveyors of fine cinema.
That would be the realm of obsessive movie geeks, like you and me. Willing to go nearly anywhere — foreign film with bad subtitles, student film, YouTube — granted that there’s a story worth watching when we get there. So the Internet is a crap factory — yes - but 95 percent of all media is pretty much guaranteed to be crap, we all know this. Remade crap, ‘rebooted’ crap, badly cast crap, crap with no suggestion an editor even breathed on it. Overhyped and underwhelming turds that absolutely refuse to flush.
Thankfully, there’s still the five percent of the good stuff, and given that it’s the Internet, it’s usually pretty easy to find, and most of the time it doesn’t even cost anything. Entire sites are based on pointing out cool shit people are doing on the Internet for free. Pajiba itself has a roundup of things on the rest of the Internet that are worth your time.
Like squirrel armor. I mean: Wow. What a brave new world.
One of the more interesting bastard children of the nerd age has to be machinima. Essentially, it means pointing a camera at a video game and dubbing in an original story. Many of the newest generation of video games have multiplayer levels or modes that allow for free movement without a predetermined goal. It turns the game into little more than a hyperadvanced puppet show, and so, if you can think of a story to tell with the characters and sets the game gives you, you’ve got your own animation studio with very little effort or cost.
So, what? Making some sort of half-ass LOTR setup with your World of Warcraft characters? Coming up with a badly acted Sims soap opera? Yes. Go online, there are a million of them — remember, 95 percent shit ratio. On a good day. Still, for a long time, even I couldn’t quite put machinima into the column of “medium” rather than message. It was too limited, too basic to do anything but hinder a real story, and even the best examples seemed like nothing more than successful gimmicks. Good for a laugh or to impress us with a cute post-production trick, proof that some people have way too much goddamn time, but not even close to something that could be considered real art.
I thought this way for years, right up until I saw “Red vs. Blue: Reconstruction.”
Rooster Teeth are one of the founding fathers of machinima, and “Red vs. Blue” is their first and longest-running series, spanning five discs and one hundred episodes, all of which are available from their website, for free. The show is produced using the characters and maps from Halo and its sequels. I’ve never played Halo, or owned an XBox. This show was my entry point into the entire universe, and I still found it pretty easy to step right in. If you’re familiar with the internet, and the assholes who populate it, you’ll get all the gamer jokes. They’re the same assholes.
The show starts a bit slow and rough, as the voice actors get into their characters and the animators start exploring and breaking the limitations of their medium, and it becomes clear to them that there’s enough of a fanbase for more than some simple, three episode joke fest. For nearly all of its run, the main show plays out a lot like nothing so much as Clerks in Space, with rival teams of Red and Blue soldiers stuck in a box canyon without a particular mission or goal, and barely the interest in shooting at each other most of the time. The characters are fairly standard: the lazy one, the stupid one, the one who watched the beach scene of Apocalypse Now one too many times — but the banter is amusing, the situations are marvelously absurd and since these are web episodes, it moves along at a steady clip.
Along with Red and Blue teams, we’re introduced fairly early on to the Freelancers, mercenaries implanted with aggressive artificial intelligence programs. Tex, the first Freelancer we meet, is not only an ex-girlfriend of one of the Blues, but the baddest of all badasses, or as another character asks, “…. are you sure she’s not half-man, half-shark?” There’s a Freelancer subplot that winds its way around and through the other stories in the show, but nothing is ever really resolved, and the main show ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. At the time, it was satisfying for a show that was mostly about the joke, and there was really no suggestion of where “Red vs. Blue” would be heading in the future, or even if it would continue, as Rooster Teeth took a break to work on other projects.
“Red vs. Blue: Reconstruction” (along with the “Recovery One” and “Out of Mind” prequel shorts) is perhaps a product of this break, and a considerably different animal, still with a generous amount of humor, but carrying something darker at its core. It returns us to the Red and Blue teams, but the greater story concerns the ramifications of the Freelancer program, the military’s efforts to cover up a growing, unknown menace that has started targeting their elite agents, and the power plays between government and military factions. At some point near the middle of this arc, you’ll start to realize you’re watching something more than just a collection of amusing jokes, that there’s the suggestion of real substance beneath the surface. It’s difficult to promote it more without giving too much away, but I can say that at the end of “Reconstruction” I was amazed — an amusing little web video had successfully given me the shivers, and left me thinking long after it had ended, just like all my favorite films. “Red vs. Blue” is good, quality entertainment, but there is something in “Reconstruction” that honestly transcends that, and suggests that machinima is as capable of producing real, quality stories as any other medium.
I would recommend watching at least a few of the first episodes of the main show on the homepage — it’s free, what have you got to lose? If it catches you, I’d highly suggest buying the box set, along with a copy of “Reconstruction.” The other nice thing about the Internet is that when you do get creators who know what the fuck they are doing, and enjoy doing it, and don’t have to answer to any greater corporate infrastructure, they tend to be really generous. No ‘interactive menus!’ as a bullshit selling point here — each disc is absolutely crammed with extras — short videos, outtakes, behind-the-scenes moments — pretty much everything ever associated with “RvB” from start to finish.
So yeah, there it is. Go get it. Here’s episode 1.
Twig Collins is not affiliated with Rooster Teeth, but one Christmas, in a move right out of the Gift of the Magi playbook, did exchange copies of the DVDs with her roommate.